Before he died, Alex Tizon told the story of his family’s slave

It’s trite to say that author Alex Tizon — a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter — saved his best work as his last work. He didn’t intend to. It just worked out that way. He died in his sleep in March. He was only 57.

He had approached The Atlantic offering to write a story about his immigrant family’s slave, Lola.

“This was his ultimate story,” his wife, Melissa, said. “He was trying to write it for five or six years. He struggled with it. But when he started writing it for The Atlantic, he stopped struggling. He wrote it with such ease.”

On the day that Tizon died, The Atlantic had just made the decision to feature Tizon’s story on the cover of the magazine, which came out today.

You can — and should — read the whole article; there’s no need for me to pull pieces of it here with the exception of this incredible section which documents our ability as humans to be unbelievably inhumane.

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie—something to do with a boy she wasn’t supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to “stand at the table.” Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound.

My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that? When I brought it up with Lola, she asked to hear Mom’s version. She listened intently, eyes lowered, and afterward she looked at me with sadness and said simply, “Yes. It was like that.”

It’s the finest piece of writing you’ll read today, perhaps ever.

  • John

    I did read it.

    I don’t have words.

  • Mike Worcester

    I heard the piece this morning on my commute. It was amazing.

  • Al

    This story stopped me in my tracks earlier this morning. I couldn’t stop reading to the end.

  • I don’t know what it is with some people. Maids are notoriously mistreated throughout Asia and the Middle East (some real horror stories originate out of the UAE and Saudi Arabia).

    “Couple jailed for starving maid: Previous maid abuse cases in Singapore”

    http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/couple-jailed-for-starving-maid-previous-maid-abuse-cases-in-singapore

  • kennedy

    If you get here, do take the extra effort and read the Atlantic article.

    Wow. Thank you.

  • jayemm

    I read the story this morning. No doubt, Tizon was a gifted writer. But I can’t get around how utterly morally bankrupt he and his family were. Forget about the “complexity”….these people held someone against her will until her death. I have no sympathy for Tizon’s guilty conscience. To me, the piece reads as a self-indulgent confessional, told with impunity after Eudicia died. There’s no apology here; just a sad old guy who waited too long to be honest. (edit: the writer was not white as I previously misstated.)

    • Kassie

      Did you actually read it? If you did, you would know he wasn’t white.

      • Or looked at the picture at the top of the page.

      • jayemm

        Fair point – I did read it, and I mis-typed. That said, the writer’s heritage does nothing to exonerate him or his family.

        • A lesser writer would’ve succumbed to the temptation to wrap the piece up with something profound, or to put what he’d just written in some sort of final context, which, of course was not needed.

          So it’s important to note that nowhere in the piece does he do that, or ask that he or his family be exonerated. He just told the story and pretty much left it to the reader to create (or not) whatever reality they wished.

          In so doing, he did what great writers do. He wrote without caring what you thought of him or his family, fully accepting that whatever you felt about a story honestly told is how you felt about a story honestly told.

          And he was only 57.

        • Was Tizon attempting to exonerate himself or his family? I don’t think so. IMHO he was giving us a cautionary tale. It might read as if it was simply one person’s experience with living a lie. In reality, it points out how easy it is that something like this can exist, right under our collective noses, within our supposed “free” society.

          I don’t believe the opinion that slavery is wrong should clash with any cultural norms elsewhere. Every member of the UN, after all, must sign its Declaration of Human Rights:

          “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”.

    • EmmVee

      Just a question, but did you grow up in North America? I didn’t. So when your parents literally have to move a WHOLE family to another country, and NOT depend on the welfare system, being broke isn’t being broke. It is called making it work. He wrote this piece to share his love for his Lola, knowing that his family (mainly his mother and father) were wrong to her. If you read the WHOLE story, he tried to make it right after. Lola lived with him until she passed, she never had to clean or lift a finger there. This is not for exoneration. Lola in tagalog means grand mother. She was never his real blood grandmother but he loved her just like she was. He wrote this story to dedicate her, not to exonerate him or his family.

  • lindblomeagles

    What makes Tizon’s writing the finest piece of writing we’ll read today is its ability to deflect our attention away from the extreme cruelty we Americans delivered upon Africans and their descendants (1619 – 1965) and Native Americans and their descendants (1609 – 1924). Tizon, for whatever reason, wrote about his family’s cruelty. Americans thought so little of Africans and Native Americans that keeping personal records of their interactions with Africans and Native Americans was often seen as a vast waste of time and resources. One group were, in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, savages, while the other group was 3/5’s of a person.

  • Laurie K.

    What a beautifully written article about a heart-wrenching story. I felt that Tizon left it all up to the individual reader to determine whether their family’s secret is forgivable. I know I have been guilty of black and white thinking, clearly defining something as either good or bad. Tizon’s story is a reminder that life is far more complicated than that.

  • Angry Jonny

    “I tapped the cheap plastic box and regretted not buying a real urn, made of porcelain or rosewood.”

    I’m not trying to pass judgment. But I find that the author had many points to do things differently in Lola’s life as well as in her death.

  • TrishM

    A really moving story, that points out how slavery is still very prevalent in our society. A truly heartbreaking life story.